Nov 052013
 

durian pastriesAt some point near the end of a recent dinner in Singapore my friend and fellow Master Brian Julyan and I suddenly thought we smelled natural gas in the restaurant where we were dining–or mercaptan, to be precise, which is added to natural gas to make it detectable.  The odor was strong enough that we called a server over to let them know about it.  He answered quickly, “no gas, just durian.”  The phrase had barely left his mouth when another server put down a plate of white puffy pastries in front of us.  Brian looked at me and said tersely, “no way.”  After all, he’d been burned once before and had never really forgiven me for it.  “I’m going in,” I announced to the table.  I then took one of the spongy pastries off the plate and quickly popped it into my mouth without further thought.  What followed was an instant descent into a wormhole of culinary/sensory hell with the most bizarre combination of horrific aromas I’d ever experienced.

This wasn’t my first encounter with durian.  In 2006 I went to Singapore for the first time with Brian and Evan Goldstein to teach the first ever MS Introductory Course in Asia.  As we headed out to dinner one night we drove past a fruit stand on the side of the street that had an enormous stockpile of bizarre green fruit.  Someone in our party asked Tommy Lam, our local contact, about the fruit which resembled a cross between a green football and an armadillo.  “Durian,” Tommy said.  “Tastes good but smells really awful.”  Being the ever curious and compulsive Americans we had to know more.  After all how bad could something possibly smell? To satisfy our morbid curiosity Tommy drove around the block and then rolled down the windows on our second pass.  Instantly a stench assaulted the car—a combination of shit, road kill and the essence of the putrefaction decay cycle. It was overwhelming.  That people could even consider eating something that smelled so foul was beyond belief.  But I was to learn more.

durian fruitThe name durian comes from the Malay world “duri” which translates as thorn; in Asia it’s called the “king of fruits.”  It’s been consumed in southeastern Asia since prehistoric times but has only been known to the western world for about 600 years. The earliest known European written record of the fruit is by Niccolò Da Conti, who traveled to Asia in the 15th century.  Durian is known for its large size (up to 12 inches long) and can weigh up to seven pounds.  There are some 30 known species of which nine produce edible fruit.  But more than anything durian is legendary for its remarkably strong, repulsive odor—an odor so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation throughout Southeast Asia.

I remember asking students in that first Introductory class about durian and whether they liked it or not.  The group was split right down the middle with half crooning at the mere mention of the word and the other half utterly repulsed.  There was no middle ground.  Those that loved it professed to be addicted to it.  One young woman said she considered durian to be an aphrodisiac or at the very least a delicacy.  She went on to say that the combination of sweet melon-like fruit with jalapeno-peppery spiciness was to die for.  However, someone else in the class said it should be outlawed completely.  Several in the group also said that eating too much durian in a short duration of time could cause dangerously high blood pressure.  I’m thinking that the olfactory bulb in your brain would probably explode long before that.

After that initial drive by experience Brian, Evan and I taunted each other for days about actually trying it.  But it wasn’t until the very last day in the basement of one of the city’s well-known shopping mega-complexes that we actually had our opportunity.  Wandering through the glaring fluorescent aisles Brian and I came face to face with a kiosk called “Durian for All Seasons.”  We looked at each other knowing that if we were ever going to taste durian this would be it.  And as fate—either fortuitous or cruel—would have it, there next to the register was a plate filled with small wafer cookies with a thin green filling.  “Come on, Brian,” I said, “how bad can it be?” (Note to self, anytime someone asks that question the answer is probably going to be some variation of “as bad as possible”).

durian all seasons

I took two of the cookies and handed one to a very reluctant Brian.  As I popped the cookie into my mouth I experienced something that’s happened every time I’ve tried durian since—the slowing down or stoppage of time.  Let me explain: whenever I’ve tried durian I’m reminded of the times when I was a kid riding my bike on a hot summer day and I wiped out on a neighborhood street which had just been repaved.  Just as I’m about to hit the pavement time slows down and almost stops so I can smell the tar of the pavement, feel the heat coming off it and then feel myself hitting it and bouncing a few times all in Sam Peckinpah slow motion. Eating durian is similar probably because the olfactory experience is so overwhelming that it short circuits the part of the brain that tracks time.

After eating my cookie I looked at Brian.  His expression was somewhere between mortified, stunned and completely freaked out.  He looked at me and said with quiet desperation, “coffee!  Now!”  We raced up four endless escalators to a coffee shop and waited five very long minutes to be seated while the taste of green radioactivity bubbled away on our palates.  Finally we were seated and ordered black coffees.  Brian didn’t speak for a long time.  Finally, as he finished the second cup that was so strong it would revive a corpse he turned to me and said, “You, sir, have betrayed my trust.”  I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for it.

Back to the most recent incident.  As I popped the durian pastry into my mouth I was assailed by that unique durian stench and experienced time stopping once again.  Tragically.  Gearoid Deverny, the third MS in our trio described my expression as “someone being electrocuted.”  I sat quietly managing the sensory overload as best as I could while the conversation at the table and the din of restaurant went on around me.  The experience was reminiscent of having a natural gas line installed in your mouth.  I reached for water several times and then downed the most tannic red on the table in front of me.  The stench and taste diminished after a few minutes but was still there in force.  It would remain for hours with the last remnant more willing to make its presence known the next morning after repeated brushing and flossing.  But I would survive to tell the tale.

What wine pairs well with durian? None is strong enough.  Only something in the spirits world could possibly match the intensity, and I’m not curious enough at this point to do any constructive research. As for your own durian adventures and experiences:

You have been warned.

Oct 232013
 

Death StarMy reward for passing the Master’s Exam in March of 1992 was to work Sunday brunch two days later.  It wasn’t punishment, it was just how the schedule worked out and I wasn’t about to pass the shift off on the other two sommeliers who were also good friends.  To be honest they would have refused to work it and rightly so.

But this is another story.  Several months later on a Friday night I had the first of many seminal sommelier moments or reality checks to be more accurate.  There I was on the floor wearing my shiny new gold and burgundy MS pin feeling somewhere between Austin Powers and James Bond with a little Mr. Bean thrown in for gravitas.  One of the first tables in the early seating was a four-top.  After they had some time to settle in the with the menu and wine list I approached the table and asked the host with the list if he had any questions or needed a suggestion.  He asked for a few minutes.

When I returned to the table he handed me the list and said with the utmost confidence, “we’ll have the such-and-such old vines Zinfandel.”  The wine in question was a seriously tannic red from a top Zinfandel producer from a vineyard that dated well back into the 19th century.  For the sake of convenience, we’ll call it “Death Star” because the tannins were so extreme they could easily take oil stains off a driveway.  “Just curious,” I cautiously asked, “what will you be enjoying for dinner?”  The host responded by saying they would start by sharing a dozen oysters on the half shell and then two of them were having the poached salmon special while the other two had settled on sautéed local Petrale Sole.   Immediately all the sommelier alarms in my head went off at over 100 decibels.  The combination of a ferociously tannic red with oysters and delicate fish was like a train looking for a wreck.  I quickly went into triage mode and tried to talk him out of the wine in every possible way by saying things like:

“Great choice. You know, I tasted that wine recently and it’s a bit tight and pretty tannic.  So we might look at a delicious aromatic white to go with the salmon and Petrale instead.”

Or

“Wow, that’s a great Zinfandel.  Someone last night enjoyed it with the chef’s braised short ribs.  You might consider that instead of the oysters and salmon.”

Or

“A single bottle of Death Star has been known to level an entire village. I’m not sure we’re licensed for it or have the proper safety equipment to administer it.”

But try as I might I could do nothing to dissuade him from ordering the newly released vintage of Death Star.  “You don’t understand,” he said, “this is our favorite wine and it’s impossible to find.  We rarely get to try it.”   I smiled and politely said, “of course.  I’ll bring it right away and decant it for you.”  Visions of ‘50’s sci-fi movies and electro beams melting human skulls danced in my head as I left the table.

Minutes later I returned with the bottle of Death Star and a decanter vainly wishing the prep kitchen had a paint shaker so I might “put a little air” into the wine before serving.  Alas, it was not to be.  I decanted the wine at the table and poured a taste for the host.  He smiled broadly and gestured for me to pour for the others at the table.  Just as I finished pouring his glass the oysters showed up and everyone tucked in ravenously.

A few minutes later I checked back in to see how everyone was doing more out of morbid curiosity than anything.  I fully expected someone at the table to voice a complaint about the tannin-bivalve insurgency in process but not a word.  Instead they ordered a second bottle of Death Star and another dozen oysters.  Then they ordered a third bottle just as the salmon and Petrale hit the table.

Conventional food and wine pairing wisdom said that they should have been suffering the cruel fate of horribly mismatched food and wine chemistry.  But there was nothing of the kind.  In fact the two couples were by all appearances having a grand time.  They polished off the third bottle with dessert and coffee.  Then the host palmed me $20 on the way out.  He thanked me profusely saying they hadn’t seen their friends in years and the fact that we had their favorite wine made the evening perfect.  I stood in the wake of the front door as it closed completely stunned.  Even with my newly acquired MS bling nothing had ever prepared me for what had just happened.  I clearly remember saying out loud, “so what the hell do I know?”

The lesson I took from the “Death Star incident” as it came to be known was simple: always give someone permission to drink whatever they like to drink regardless of how much you know or in this case think you know.  Otherwise in doing what you believe is the right thing everyone loses.  Oh yes, context as in “this is my favorite wine,” trumps all.

I’d like a Fernet, please.

Oct 142013
 

 

Grapes on a Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

From walk-around wine tastings and dinners with winemakers to clever titles and cute comparisons, it’s challenging for wine public relations people to create something new and different for the press and trade. However, the folks at Complexity – New Zealand  have certainly succeeded with their Grapes on a Train event held in late September.

“All aboard!” came the shouts from the conductors as we assembled on the platform at New York Penn Station very early on a Sunday morning. We were about to embark on a unique journey, partially retracing the tracks of the famed 20th Century Limited.

Operated by the New York Central Railroad  from 1902 to 1967, the 20th Century Limited provided express service from New York to Chicago, making the journey in only 16 hours.  The passenger train was known for its high level of service, complete with its signature red carpet rolled out in the station platforms on either end. As journalists and sommeliers, we were similarly given the red carpet treatment when we entered the Hickory Creek train car, hooked up behind the regular Amtrak service to Montreal. This historic, Pullman car was part of the 20th Century Limited’s re-launch in 1948 and has now been restored to its former glory, used for private events held along Amtrak’s existing routes.

Given its remarkable history, the 20th Century Limited has been prominently featured in books and Broadway we well as movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.Thankfully, instead of being greeted by villains and spies, the group was welcomed aboard by winemakers from some of New Zealand’s top wineries.

Upon departure, we headed north past beautiful views of the Hudson River and fall foliage on our way to Canada. But, while the scenery was stunning, our true itinerary was New Zealand, as the winemakers presented several seminars with guided tastings.

The seminars were led by the winemakers, all members of the Complexity-New Zealand consortium. This portfolio crosses wine regions and emphasizes New Zealand’s high quality wines, with membership currently limited to 17 producers.   We kicked off the day with a general introduction to New Zealand – its history, its culture, its people and its land. With the stage set, we then moved onto the varietally-focused tastings.

Wines on the Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

 

Sauvignon Blanc with Brett Bermingham, Winemaker of Nautilus Estate and Tim Heath, Winemaker at Cloudy Bay
It’s nearly impossible to speak about New Zealand wine without mentioning Sauvignon Blanc as the grape that put New Zealand on the world stage. However, the discussion centered on the diversity of Sauvignon Blanc, looking at differences among grapes grown on gravels compared to those grown on clays as well as among the Wairau and Awatere Valleys situated within the greater Marlborough region. In this regard, clay soils provide more herbal/green notes and less tropical fruit. As New Zealand producers become more experienced and their vines become more mature, it is expected that more sophisticated styles of Sauvignon Blanc will be seen in the future. Among the most interesting wines tasted in this session (and perhaps of the entire event) was a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from 1996, which showed that although these wines are best enjoyed in their youth, they can provide complex aromas and flavors with age. Among the younger wines, I really liked the Mud House “The Woolshed” Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Aromatics Seminar with Rudi Bauer, Winemaker of Quartz Reef and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Less well known than Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic white varieties of New Zealand can be traced back to the 1980s when Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris were first planted. Rudi suggested that these varieties were more about purity of varietal expression than about winemaking, additionally emphasizing the link between aromatics and acidity. Rudi acknowledged that you don’t always know what you are getting from Pinot Gris, but with Riesling, the standard of quality is better. He felt that the reason Pinot Gris was way behind Riesling in its development was that the initial stock had come from Geisenheim, when the focus was on quantity, not quality. As progress is made, alcohol levels are coming down as are sugar levels. Consequently, Pinot Gris wines are becoming more food friendly to support cuisine along with a trend toward longer time spent on the lees, resulting in wines with more richness and texture. My favorite wine of the session was the Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris 2012 , Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand.

Pinot Noir with Matt Dicey, General Manager and Winemaker of Mt. Difficulty Wines and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Although Matt admitted that Burgundy is a reference point for Pinot Noir, he also emphasized the word, Tūrangawaewae, which is Maori for “where we stand,” an indigenous concept similar to that of terroir. Building on this aspect, he mentioned the regional and vineyard differences as well as the increased exposure to UV light in New Zealand as compared to vineyards in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, Central Otago fruit is credited with delivering darker fruit flavors, while Marlborough is generally more savory in style. With wines from both of these regions, the session tasting provided further confirmation of this diversity. My favorite was the Villa Maria Taylors Pass Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah with Nick Picone, Senior Winemaker of Villa Maria Estate
Nick referred to the wines in his session as “hidden gems,” suggesting that most people know a whole lot less about these wines than others from New Zealand. Turning first to Chardonnay, he noted that premium NZ Chardonnay is typically hand picked, whole bunch pressed and barrel fermented with good freshness and a purity of fruit. Wines from the warmer north are picked earlier and at lower sugars, while wines from the cooler south with have more lime and citrus notes, with intense minerality in those from Central Otago. When discussing Bordeaux style wines, which are best associated with Hawkes Bay, Nick attributed the turning point for this region to the establishment of the Gimblett Gravels. Finally, he spoke of New Zealand Syrah, which he described as being closer to the Rhône Valley in style than to Australia, despite the geographic proximity. I was impressed with the Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2009, Auckland, New Zealand.

After arriving in Montreal, we stopped at the hotel to freshen up before heading to an evening BBQ, held at a rented house in the Mont-Royal neighborhood. From the home’s rooftop, we could see the Olympic Park, but the fall weather pushed most of us inside where we proceeded to enjoy a delicious meal accompanied by an enormous selection of wines. Having been to New Zealand several years ago, I was especially pleased to see wines from Amisfield, Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga, all places we visited (and tasted at) on our trip.

The next morning, it was off to the airport for the flight home, packed with luggage and great memories of a fun and festive virtual visit to New Zealand.

Sep 122013
 

One of the cardinal rules of international marketing is to make sure that anything written translates to local languages. This rule, however, is often observed more in the breach than in the observance in Asia. The internet is riddled with funny signs, packages, etc. from countries whose primary languages include Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, etc. who didn’t quite get it right. Sometimes it’s a simple typo or two, but often enough, it’s because something was just lost in translation.

This holds true for wine labels as well. As is all too often the case, as well, there are those who try to con unsuspecting consumers by producing something that is not quite kosher.

One of our favorite international wine blogs is Grape Wall of China, who covers the wine business in this fastest growing and soon to be largest market for wine. They have a Tumblr blog where they showcase some of the most wacky examples of Chinese wine labels.

We have to say that our very favorite has to be this back label copy for the Alice White Lexia:

Alice White Lexia

“Yellow, flowers and a beautiful apricot color, with a strong musk. Rich texture, with a sweet fuck in sweet orange peel and apricot flavor, at the end of a clean. Drink now.”

Something tells me, they wouldn’t be able to get this one past the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau here in the states.

 

 

Feb 232012
 
Dallas Morning News Wine Competition

Photo Credit: Tim Gaiser MS

Whenever I tell someone I’m traveling to judge a wine competition their response is inevitably, “oh how lucky you are to get to taste all those wines.” And I think, “Yeah right.”  Funny how the very thought of tasting over a hundred wines in a day sounds like big fun to most people but in reality it’s usually about as much fun as chasing parked cars.  There are certainly good times to be had if you get placed on the right panel with people who are colleagues and friends–and the group works well together.  Mind you judging on the wrong panel with stubborn or dysfunctional people can be like being banned to an outpost at the edge of the universe.  Regardless, the task at hand involves working through dozens of flights of wines, many of which are not only far from medal-worthy, but either flawed or imminently regrettable.  Such was the case last weekend in Dallas where I helped judge the Dallas Morning News Competition at the Four Seasons Las Colinas Resort, a gorgeous property.  Fortunately, the wine competition gods smiled on me this time and I was able to chair a great panel consisting of friends and fellow MS’ Wayne Belding and Laura Williamson.  My former editor at Fine Cooking Magazine and dear friend Amy Albert rounded out the team.

Our mission on day one was to work through 115 wines from Sonoma County.  We started with a flight of Pinots (several very good ones) then Merlots (also several good wines), before moving on to flights of Cabernets, Zinfandels, Syrahs and finally Cab blends.  It was somewhere Between Barstow and the end of the Cabernets that our team became concerned for our olfactory health.  Many of the wines seemed to have the vinous hygiene of a high school 4-H Club.  We dubbed one remarkably bretty and tannic Cabernet the “angry cow.”  And it more than delivered.  After lunch day one concluded with two flights of Chardonnays, all pretty good, none stellar and many almost exactly alike.  Visions of Hello Kitty, Britney Spears and an endless landscape of microwave popcorn danced in my head.

What makes a good wine–a medal wine, you might ask?  Easy answer: it should be clean and well-made; it should smell and taste like the grape variety it’s made from; and above all it should be balanced, appealing and drinkable.  Score one in each of those columns and your wine gets a medal.  Really do a good job and the wine will get a gold medal or silver at least.  Trust me, when we came across one of these top wines the quality was obvious to everyone on the team—like a blinding light being turned on in a dark space.

Day two dawned bright and sunny despite the copious amount of Negronis and Fernet Branca consumed by some of the judges the night before.  It was Riesling day, something our team had talked about all along.  After tasting through an initial flight of Greek wines (some excellent reds) our task of the day was to work through the better part of 90 Rieslings from Europe, Australia and the U.S.  We were, needless to say, dangerously excited.  The first flight of German wines yielded two outstanding entries that garnered top honors.  From there a very good flight of Alsace Rieslings followed by two flights of Australian Rieslings from Clare and Eden Valley.  The latter turned out to be the best grouping of the two days.  Several gold medals here with more than a few silver medals.  Although Aussie Riesling is well known among the sommelier community it’s not exactly a household name.  It’s one of the most concentrated, intense and mineral-driven white wines made anywhere and definitely one of the paradigms for the Riesling grape.  Monikers such as “liquid light saber” or “liquid piano wire” come to mind.  Needless to say, the wines are also remarkably ageworthy.

We took a break after the Aussie wines and then dug into multiple flights of California, Washington and America appellations Rieslings.  It was here that everything pretty much went south.  Although there were a few good wines here and there what followed was a primer in the misuse of SO2 and acidulation.  Aside from the sulfur and baby aspirin texture of some of the wines, many others were oxidized and still others were alarmingly flawed with sulfide or mercaptan issues.  It was here, faithful reader, where we earned our keep, where the rubber met the road.  Oddly enough, some of the wines actually did smell like rubber.  But that’s another story.  In the end we handed in our paperwork, took a team photo and finished up with lunch.  It was a great two days and I thought our team did an excellent job of working together to find the best wines presented.  And it was almost too much fun.